Looking at Indian restaurants in America, it used to be that the cuisine of south Asia was so exotic that any Indian restaurant would do. As a result, most followed the same format with a generic menu and closed the deal with a lunch buffet. Thankfully, some variety has emerged. There are southern Indian restaurants around town, as well as the occasional chaat shop for snacks. Along Tempe’s Apache Boulevard, The Dhaba serves food from the Punjab region of northern India and explores that specialty in more depth than most local Indian restaurants.
In the Punjab, dhabas are a type of roadside restaurant serving comfort food in informal surroundings along highways. Tempe’s interpretation of a dhaba lies along Apache Boulevard, which once served as a highway before newer freeways criss-crossed the metropolitan area. Apache is now a high-capacity transit corridor, and the Dhaba lies a quarter mile east of the McClintock / Apache light rail station. The restaurant is part of a shopping center known as India Plaza, where groceries, DVDs, and other south Asian goods are for sale.
The one-story building looks quaint next to the newer multi-story apartment complexes that continue to sprout nearby, and it’s easy to overlook. Even within the plaza, the restaurant itself can be hard to locate amid the various tenants. The most central portion of the plaza is occupied by a market. Look to the left for the restaurant next door. The patio is seldom used for dining, but it leads to the Dhaba’s front door. A bike rack is located just to the left of the restaurant, and two fanciful Indian pedicabs are on display near the grocery store entrance.
Inside, the Dhaba’s look is spiffier than the original roadside concept, but still true to its roots. The wooden plank eating surfaces of traditional dhabas have been replaced with textured dark wood tables. Even the high chairs for young children match the look. Metal plates and drinking vessels augment the rustic feel. The small waiting area near the host station feels like a casual living room. Stylish light fixtures overhead create a gentle red glow suggestive of food cooked in a tandoor, a traditional clay oven that is popular in Punjabi cooking.
Tandoori foods are prominent on the Dhaba’s menu, with skewers of poultry, meat, vegetables, shrimp, and fish available. Even a vegetarian option, cubes of paneer cheese with vegetables, benefits from time in the clay oven. The plain-tasting cheese, often viewed as the Indian equivalent of tofu, is imbued with flavor from the marinade of spices and yogurt. Red meat fans should be prepared to enjoy some lamb or maybe even a little goat. In deference to both Hindu and Islamic teachings, the Dhaba offers neither beef nor pork.
Besides the tandoori items, there are numerous dals and curries, along with rice dishes and breads ideal for soaking up the flavorful sauces. In addition to the standard brown dal makhani seen in many Indian buffets, the Dhaba offers a more distinctive rahon dal tikka, a spiced puree of yellow lentils. Chicken, lamb, and meatless dishes offer a great deal of variety, with many ingredients appearing in different combinations at various places on the menu. Palak chana, for example, pairs creamy spinach with chickpeas in a viscous sauce.
Some of the most interesting menu items are found among the selection of chaat, or Indian snack foods, that can serve as appetizers. Samosas, stuffed pastry full of meat or vegetables, are both familiar and delicious. Others will be new to many diners. Bombay bhel puri can only be described as having a texture like Rice Krispies, although the trio of accompanying sauces adds needed flavor and moisture to the dish. Bhatura chole is a serving of puffy fry bread, easily torn and shared at the table, with a side of curried chickpeas as an accompaniment.
If looking for a generous meal in one packaged assembly, try one of the thalis, meals of multiple components presented on a platter. The delhi chandni chowk thali comes with a vegetable basmati rice dish, medium-spicy chicken curry, a vegetable of the day such as chana masala (chickpeas in a tomato sauce), naan, salad, dal, raita, dessert, and chai. It’s a whole lot of food, and its principal advantage lies in offering a full spectrum of Punjabi dishes to the solo diner or the customer not comfortable sharing food with others at the table.
With a lower price range and more moderate portion sizes, the weekday lunch specials offer an even more economical way to sample the Dhaba’s Punjabi cuisine. Three options are offered each weekday: one meatless dish, one chicken entree, and one item featuring lamb of seafood. The featured curry comes with dal, naan, rice, raita, and rice pudding for dessert. Featured choices range from mild dishes like Monday’s malai kofta, vegetarian meatballs in a creamy sauce, to fiery, vinegary offerings such as fish vindaloo on Fridays.
The Dhaba offers not only the usual big bottles of Indian beer, but also a generous selection of bottled craft brews and wine by the glass. Beverages without alcohol include soft drinks like Thums Up, an Indian cola, and lassi yogurt drinks full of fresh mint and fennel seeds, a nice contrast with the packaged versions found in some Indian restaurants. Indian food may no be longer exotic, and Apache Boulevard may no longer be a highway, but the Dhaba’s Punjabi road food is a welcome stop along Tempe’s transforming transit corridor.
1872 E. Apache Blvd., Tempe AZ 85281
McClintock / Apache Station